The biggest test of Gavin Wimsatt’s career is here. Rutgers (3-0) faces No. 2 Michigan (3-0) on Saturday at noon in the Big House. It was last season that RU led the Wolverines at the half before Wimsatt’s three interceptions bolstered 38 unanswered points scored by Jim Harbaugh’s team.
So far in 2023, things have been much different for the Rutgers offense with Wimsatt under center. Through three games this season, Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt has accounted for five touchdowns and zero turnovers. There is no bigger or more important takeaway in assessing his development than those stats.
“When we don’t turn it over, we’re tough to beat,” Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano said during his game week press conference.
While Wimsatt is only completing 51.5% of his passes this season (34-66), he has been very good on short passes. Per Pro Football Focus, Wimsatt has completed 27 of 33 passes for 81.8% on attempts less than 10 yards. And although Wimsatt has not been efficient on pass plays of 10+ yards, he has made some big plays through the air in clutch spots.
The question now is how will Wimsatt handle the defensive pressure of Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines are No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense. Granted the competition hasn’t been strong, but the two-time defending Big Ten champions have a stout unit once again.
“I think Gavin is improving by the day. I thought did he a great job Saturday,” Schiano said. “You know, three games into the season, he’s protected the football the way we’ve asked him. He had some bad luck Saturday. He had three drops and two route errors, two route busts. So you know, if you take those five, and maybe you call four of them completions, that really changes the complexion. We didn’t throw much. We didn’t need to throw much. We were running effectively, and that was kind of game it was.”
Schiano’s comments bring up a fair point when judging Wimsatt’s body of work. The offensive line is rotating players at a high rate while still working to find the best five linemen within the group. The wide receivers have been inconsistent and have been without two projected starters in Naseim Brantley and Chris Long. As good as the running backs have been, the best pass catcher of the group Aaron Young has yet to play this season.
It’s not rocket science. For Rutgers to seriously challenge Michigan on Saturday, Wimsatt is going to have to make some plays in the pass game. The Wolverines will likely stack the box to stop the run and challenge Wimsatt to make throws. If he struggles with accuracy or to move the ball through the air, the offense have trouble sustaining drives.
“Every game is different,” Schiano remarked. “We can throw the ball 60 times this week. You never know what it’s going to take, but you do whatever it takes to win the game, or gives you the best chance to win the game. But I’m pleased with his development. He continues to really prepare his tail off, and I think his arrow, his nose is pointed up.”
The formula for winning the first three games was clear. Establish an early lead, control the game with time of possession and limiting mistakes leading to wearing down the opponent in the fourth quarter. It worked to perfection and Rutgers is 3-0 with a scoring margin of +65 because of it. However, that’s not exactly going to work against Michigan.
Yes, Rutgers needs to limit mistakes and control the clock. But they aren’t going to physically overpower Michigan and running the ball against them will need to be set up through the pass game. While Wimsatt was able to do that at points so far this season, Saturday’s opponent is at a much higher level.
It’s obvious offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has not fully utilized the playbook. He hasn’t needed to and having some schemes in his back pocket to go to in a game of this magnitude is a smart strategy. It’s likely we’ll see Rutgers run something on offense we have yet to see so far.
Of course, the offensive line needs to continue to pass protect at a high level. It will be interesting to see how much Wimsatt is moved out of the pocket intentionally on rollouts and RPO actions. If Wimsatt is under pressure most of the game, it will certainly make things harder on him. In addition, picking his spots to run and being effective with those decisions will be key as well.
I think the most impressive thing about Wimsatt this season has been his poise and command of the offense. He looks confident in what he’s doing and his play has reflected that. What we haven’t seen yet is how he will react to adversity. How will he respond after committing his first turnover of the season? He’s only been sacked once, so can he regroup after taking a big hit on the road? If Rutgers trails early, does he have the ability to get the team back into the game.
For Rutgers to do the unthinkable and beat No. 2 Michigan on the road on Saturday, Wimsatt is going to have to rise up. A path to victory starts with him taking another step forward in his development. There should be confidence that Ciarrocca has been working with Wimsatt to be ready for this moment.
While this game will not define Rutgers’ season nor Wimsatt’s overall development, it’s a definite barometer and progress report on where this team and the quarterback are at in this moment. Both have passed every test so far, but now the questions get much harder. If Wimsatt and the Rutgers offense can find enough right answers on Saturday, it could lead to the biggest win in program history. And even if that doesn’t happen, if Wimsatt can handle the pressure and perform fairly well, that would be a great sign for his long term development this season and beyond.
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